Spring 2017

Anthony Daly lecturing

Thinking through a course revision

by Anthony Daly, Ph.D.

Photo Credit: Reagan Smith

Teaching at a public liberal arts college means that you teach a lot. Often, this means teaching some of the same courses every year, perhaps every semester. These courses are often a requirement in a major, and perhaps also the core. This familiarity and experience can be a benefit, helping the course improve each semester, but there is also a possibility that things can get a little stale. Some courses lend themselves to changing materials and points of emphasis, something like changing a road trip plan to reach the same destination by a different route, but others have requirements and obligations that can make them seem more like a train on rails. As a result, each semester can feel something like working through a familiar script. I’m always torn over the question of whether to repeat jokes that seem to work every time I tell them. It may help to lighten the mood, but it leaves me feeling like a performer working my way through a rehearsed act—that perhaps I should follow up with “Please, try the veal.” The dilemma I am trying to describe is how to realize the benefits of teaching as an experienced professor, but minimizing the drawbacks of feeling stale or repetitive. In this essay, I would like to explore the process of revamping a course that has been taught many times. For me, that course was HIST 104 Modern World Civilization. 

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Modern World Civilization has become a staple of History programs and universities across the country. As university education developed in the twentieth century, history was seen as a staple of the liberal arts. In a different era, American colleges and universities understood the world in the mid-twentieth century with a course that explained the world as seen through the lens of western dominance—courses in “Western Civ” proliferated. In the 1960s and 70s, history departments debated whether these courses should reflect a different, wider, understanding of global interconnections and the value of regions and peoples outside “the West.”1 At MCLA, then North Adams State College, Dr. Daniel Connerton led an effort in 1971 to replace “Western Civ” with “World Civ.” The course that emerged is the course we teach today: “HIST 104 Modern World Civilization— Provides an introductory historical survey of the major events, ideas and people which have shaped world civilizations since 1500, the beginning of the modern era of history. Takes a comparative, interdisciplinary, and non-Eurocentric approach to historical analysis emphasizing diversity and global awareness.” This shift to world history is still a topic of some controversy and Western Civ courses and texts are still widely offered, but at MCLA, the course is well-entrenched.

The modern era is generally seen to start around 1500, so the course covers a huge swathe of time and space—the world in the last 500 years. There is a rich body of scholarship on approaches to this near-impossible task, but there are no easy answers.2 Texts in world history reflect the struggles of instructors. Increasing scholarship, especially in regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, leads to ever-increasing amounts of material to be covered. In addition to the challenge of creating an understandable narrative, texts and instructors need to encourage the study of primary sources, history’s bedrock materials—for example, visual art, newspapers, and letters—that convey what happened in years past. Students need to study those sources to grow as thinkers and analysts; they allow students to see for themselves the challenge of understanding the past when there is too little–or too much—evidence, and to glimpse the contingency of historical events and dynamics. But how does one balance the need for covering key events while also encouraging the development of skills such critical thinking and communication? I started thinking about that question more and more as my sabbatical approached in the fall of 2014.      

At that point, I had been teaching HIST 104 at MCLA for eight years, in addition to several years as a teaching assistant and instructor in graduate school, so the challenges set out above had been floating around my head for quite a while. Soon after starting at MCLA, I had also been brought into a great group of faculty, the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, coordinated by Dr. Adrienne Wootters.  Discussions with these colleagues introduced me to new approaches to teaching. I began to delve into the place of world history in the growing field of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).3 I had been engaged in a continuous process of tinkering and revising course materials, the means of delivering content, and engaging with students, but the sabbatical semester provided the first real chance to attempt a complete overhaul, to re-conceptualize the course. Two elements had recurred in my thinking more and more in the two or three semesters before fall 2014: content and student engagement.

My thinking about content touched on three ideas. One, in an age of instant access to information, simply conveying information to students seemed to be losing validity as a primary goal in a world history survey. My time at MCLA had included the rise of smart phones and the availability of information was staggering. If students perceive history as memorizing names, dates, and events, they cannot be faulted for doubting its value when they hold the answers to those questions in their palms. Two, despite my best efforts in using a variety of source materials and classroom techniques, students did not seem to be retaining the information that I was conveying in the way I hoped they would. Many final exams, written at what should have been the peak of their engagement with the course material, departed dramatically, and creatively, from what I believed had been covered in classes. Three, I had always been troubled by the task of covering 500 years of world history in one semester; the amount of material to be “covered” was impossible, and I had come to believe that trying to attempt anything close to reasonable coverage of the major events and regions of the globe in the last five centuries was working at cross-purposes with the objective of providing students with opportunities to actually engage in what history is—the analysis of information to better understand the past, and therefore our own world. It was very difficult for students to acquire the familiarity with issues and regions that would allow them to make informed judgements when so little time could be spent on any one topic before racing on to the next, in order that the god “Coverage” might be sated.4

So I started to read. There is a wealth of information on these topics, and the more I read, the more I found to read.5 Advances in thinking around pedagogy were being paired with the possibilities of the digital age to revolutionize the way that a history survey could be taught. The possibilities were almost endless. Instead of an approach that permitted an instructor and a text to share scarce information with students, the possibilities of the digital age dictated new approaches, capitalizing on the abundance of information and how students could benefit in content and method.6

After immersing myself in these materials for a few weeks, I met with my colleagues in the History Department who have experience teaching HIST 104. One afternoon, I sat down with Dan Connerton, Kailai Huang, and Don Pecor and talked history. In a very productive session, we wrestled with what should be taught and how to teach it. We talked about texts, pedagogy, and retention of information. Suggestions in this meeting became the starting point for the approach that I eventually settled on, balancing the need to establish “historical literacy” and the importance of giving students real opportunities for the analysis that is only possible with an established foundation of in-depth knowledge.7

I decided to begin the semester by covering 12-14 pivotal elements in modern world history—for example, the Atlantic Slave Trade, the French Revolution, and World War II. These events formed the timeline that would serve as the backdrop for the rest of the semester and would be reinforced by the region or country-specific analysis that would unfold in the rest of the course; this initial process would take approximately a month. The timeline that we worked towards is included here:

The format of these classes would not be the same combination of lecture and discussion employed in my past Modern World Civilization classes. Along with a new conceptualization of the course, I wanted to change the dynamic in the classroom, encouraging more participation from students. In the new course, classes would involve a combination of one, discussing material that students had covered in advance and submitted responses to on Canvas, the college’s learning management system, and two, new material introduced in class. This strategy, of course, is a version of flipping the classroom.8 That approach would last through the semester. The timeline section would conclude with students, no matter their familiarity with world history to that point, having established a foundation, a backdrop against which the material examined over the remainder of the semester would fit.  With that foundation established, we would spend the rest of the semester in intense study of five countries or regions that we could examine for three or four classes (75 minutes each). We started with China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Russia, and Israel/Palestine, but these choices can change, especially if current events bring a region or country to the fore. The purpose would be to spend enough time in each area that students would gain the knowledge and confidence to analyze events and make connections, both in a specific context and across time.

This different approach also presented an opportunity to address another problem frequently encountered in teaching history, especially when most students are fulfilling a core obligation: how to demonstrate the importance, the relevance, of the material to our contemporary setting? As the instructor in the class, with a love for history and an awareness of how the material in the course fits together, I can see the relevance of the material from the start of the course. However, for many students, the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s seems a world away and can easily be absorbed into a mindset that views history as a series of endless, inconsequential, names and dates, from forgotten past centuries. While the last few weeks of a Modern World Civilization course can serve as something of a big reveal—now we see how the decline of the Ottoman Empire and its loss of Palestine in WWI helps to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict—is there a way to make those contemporary connections more apparent at an earlier point in the semester?

I decided to alter not only the concept of the course, but the traditional, chronological, order of presenting the material. By beginning each new section with material on the country or region in the last few years, students would not have to wait until the end of the semester to see relevance. In subsequent classes, we would move backwards in time. With this approach, the way in which the contemporary world has been shaped by the past is part of the natural learning process. With the addition of students submitting short response writings on Canvas before each class, I could guide them to make connections to key ideas in and across eras. I could lead a substantive discussion about what students learned in their preparation work.

For example, by examining contemporary China in a first class, we could then move back in time to study the Communist era, the two world wars and the period of civil war, the decline of the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century, and the earlier strength of China, as seen in the late 1700s and early 1400s. By identifying a consistent thread such as foreign influence, contemporary news articles describing tensions between China and the United States in the South China Sea make more sense. After analyzing Emperor Qianlong’s proud response in 1793 to Britain’s request for increased trade, the Economist magazine’s 2013 cover story, “Let’s party like it’s 1793,” becomes much more interesting. The horrors of the Japanese occupation of China during WWII contribute to understanding Sino-Japanese friction today. In addition to seeing direct links between eras, this approach helps students gain the confidence to participate more in discussions. Unlike a traditional world history survey that moves swiftly from region to region and across time, this sustained concentration on one area builds up knowledge and familiarity so that students can feel like something of an expert, rather than each class bringing an unfamiliar topic, making informed analysis of source material that much more difficult. I believed that this new approach had great promise, but the fresh structure had to fit within preexisting parameters.

In the big picture, the course needed to stay true to the objectives that underpin it, at MCLA and across the country. As part of the core curriculum, the course needs to meet the learning outcomes for the Human Heritage domain:

1. Apply critical and comparative approaches to primary and secondary sources;

2. Draw valid conclusions from documentary evidence and evaluate the significance of such conclusions;

3. Evaluate the significance of events, ideas, or circumstances in a given text both within their own and contemporary contexts.

The new version does conform to these points, perhaps more so than the old one I taught. Along with these outcomes, the discipline of history has worked in recent years to codify what we need to do in teaching history. As noted above, the AHA’s Tuning Project was helpful in multiple ways through this process, a national project that brought together faculty from a range of institutions across the country for multiple discussions and drafts to “articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.” The first version of the History Discipline Core, completed in 2013, helped me to check that my ideas for the new course maintained consistency with the field of history as a discipline. Of the six Core Competencies that were identified, I found the first three were strong matches with my thinking for this course (Engage in historical inquiry, research, and analysis; Practice historical empathy; Understand the complex nature of the historical record), while the others were more suited for work in more advanced courses. The Tuning Project would serve as a valuable guide, setting an array of large ideas (competencies) and specific points (learning outcomes) to inform my thinking in what this reimagined version of HIST 104 might try to achieve.9

Considering these larger questions brought home to me how one of the most appealing aspects of teaching history at the college level is that different instructors can teach the same course in different ways. Within a framework of concepts, parameters, and approaches, versions of the same course can take on different complexions. My department colleagues, each an expert with decades of experience, employ different approaches, different assignments, and different areas of emphasis. After our meeting, I realized that the delicate balance in approaching this course redesign was to ensure coverage of pivotal events, people, and forces while continuing to develop the skills that reflected the Human Heritage learning outcomes and the Tuning Initiative’s articulation of the valuable elements in studying history at the college level. 

Researching the field of SoTL helped me think through how to turn these ideas into a course, often adding in other possibilities that I had not considered or taking a concept in a different direction—especially in dealing with technology.10 The materials for the course can draw from a much richer palette than a traditional, sometimes expensive, course text. Instead of seeing one or two pictures in a text as examples of the Renaissance, students can look online and explore the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in glorious color, roaming and zooming across this masterpiece. Or they can page through one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks on a web site combining a 500 year old book and cutting-edge technology.11 The wealth of primary source materials available online combines with amazing resources such as the Films on Demand streaming video service through the Freel Library to allow a tailored approach to how students prepare for each class. Based on this research and thinking, I decided to eliminate the course text entirely. Not only was there no longer a sufficient benefit to justify the cost, but I now have access to better material, as I can pick from across the digital world to suit my plan for a class.

In the final few weeks of my sabbatical, before classes began, I worked to pull together the elements discussed above into a framework for the new course, conceptualizing the approach and working to find a variety of sources that would provide sufficient background, differing perspectives, and exciting possibilities for thinking about the past. Looking back as I write this, it is hard to believe that this final substantive step was more than three years ago.

In that first semester, and subsequent semesters, I believe that the revision has been a success. To relate the evolution of the course since 2015 would require another article, but overall, the structure and approach remain as envisioned. It is worth noting that the biggest challenge has been the uncertainty that must accompany a course that moves away from a lecture format and becomes driven by discussion. Rather than a linear approach, the students’ reactions to, and analysis of, the material they studied before class, via Canvas, determine the direction of the class. I prepare focus questions at the beginning of each class to assist students in their note-taking process, for there is no lecture to follow and summarize. I believe that the students are much more engaged and that they are learning about history in a manner that is closer to what historians value in our discipline. In anonymous surveys that I conduct after a month and also near the end of the course, students have been very positive about the class dynamic.

Working through this process allowed me to restructure a course that I believe is valuable, and that I feel is now a more rewarding experience for me as the instructor and offers a better learning experience for students. I love the engagement with students offered through a full teaching load at a small institution, but to devote the time and energy required to fulfill those duties well means that there is very limited time for other major projects. The respite of a sabbatical semester provided that time for thinking and creating. This experience brought me the benefits of a reenergized course and the excitement of teaching new materials, in a new framework. I hope you have enjoyed this description of the journey. I am looking forward to continuing it in the semesters ahead.

Biographical Note:

Anthony Daly is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Political Science and Public Policy at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He holds an MA and a Ph.D. from Boston College and a BA from the University of Toronto. Anthony teaches a wide range of courses in European history, the history of the British Empire, and world history.  His research focuses on radicalism in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland, and he is currently working on an article that examines the connections between the Chartists, a working-class voting reform movement in England, and William Sharman Crawford, a wealthy landlord from County Down in Ireland, during the 1830s and 1840s.


1 Many of the points in this paragraph draw from selections in Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion (Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2000).

2 Entryways to this literature include Antoinette M. Burton, A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) and Kenneth Robert Curtis and Jerry H. Bentley, eds., Architects of World History: Researching the Global Past (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2014).

3 For example, see Alan Booth, “Rethinking the Scholarly: Developing the Scholarship of Teaching in History,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 3, no. 3 (2004): 247–66., and many resources available at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History, www.indiana.edu/~histsotl/blog/.

4 Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” The Journal of American History, no. 4 (2011): 1050-1066.

5 Some of the most helpful were Jerry H. Bentley, ed., The Oxford Handbook of World History (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); José Antonio Bowen, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012); Keith A. Erekson, “The History Survey Project: Improving Introductory History Courses,” OAH Magazine of History 27, no. 3 (July 1, 2013): 41–43; Peter N. Stearns, Peter C. Seixas, and Samuel S. Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

6 The Tuning Project, an initiative of the American Historical Association that began in 2011, has been a valuable resource in many ways. This thorough attempt to understand the teaching of history, undertaken in a new digital age, helps to think through bedrock elements, innovative possibilities, and how achieve them. https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline/2013-history-discipline-core.

7 The Tuning Project described this aim as “Develop a body of historical knowledge with range and depth.”

8 The literature on this topic in high school and college classrooms is vast. For an example of world history, see Judy E. Gaughan, “The Flipped Classroom in World History,” The History Teacher, no. 2 (2014): 221-244.

9 https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline/2013-history-discipline-core.

10 For example, see Heidi Roupp, ed., Teaching World History in the Twenty-First Century: A Resource Book (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2010); Terry Haydn, ed., Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Learning in History (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2013).

11 http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html; http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/.